Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Wicked Words

Some time ago, there was a discussion of cursing on this blog. I'm inspired to take up the topic again by having recently read Steven Pinker's new book, THE STUFF OF THOUGHT. The author of highly readable, provocative, and densely informative earlier books such as THE LANGUAGE INSTINCT and HOW THE MIND WORKS, in this new volume he explores "Language as a Window into Human Nature." Some of the contents make heavy going and require the navigating of technical linguistic terms, but two fascinating chapters are worth the price of the book (or at any rate worth borrowing a copy from the library): Chapter Eight, "Games People Play," about the language of politeness, plausible deniability, and social pretense in general (why do we ask for the salt in, strictly speaking, nonsensical utterances such as, "Could you pass the salt?" instead of just saying, "Give me the salt"?); and Chapter Seven, "The Seven Words You Can't Say on Television." By the way, I was delighted finally to learn what those fabled seven words were (pre-cable TV) and surprised to find "tits" on the list. Personally, I can think of quite a few terms more objectionable than that almost-cute synonym for mammaries.

Pinker lists the categories from which taboo words are typically drawn in Earth's languages as sex, excretion, religion, death and disease, and groups of people considered inferior. For an example of the latter, in our otherwise libertine linguistic climate one insult commonplace fifty or sixty years ago has become so taboo that most people won't pronounce it even to discuss it, instead using the euphemism "the n-word." Another interesting factor about rude words is that their substitution with euphemisms produces a constantly receding horizon; the connotation sooner or later taints the euphemism. For instance, "bathroom," which began as a euphemism, has become the most blunt term most people will use in polite company for what's more often called the restroom, powder room, little girls' room (or, in our office, labeled by the locative phrase "down the hall"). Many readers might be surprised to learn that "retarded," now displaced by "mentally challenged," originated as a euphemism; it was meant to imply that the child wasn't feebleminded, just a bit slower than his peers. Other sometime-obscenities fall in and out of grace. Prior to the nineteenth century, a few of those taboo seven words were perfectly acceptable in sober writing, whereas the formerly obscene "bloody" has lost its bite, for Americans anyway (I don't know about contemporary Britons), so that Eliza Doolittle's indulgence in that word sounds funny to us instead of shocking. "Bitch," which in my youth was acceptable in polite company only among dog breeders, now seems to be considered unexceptionable by lots of otherwise courteous speakers.

Pinker maintains that religious-themed swearing has lost its offensiveness for Americans, to which I respond, "Speak for yourself, Dr. Pinker." I still wince at a casual "damn," and hearing people invoke the name of the Deity loosely or, worse yet, abusively sounds almost as painful to me as the F-word. However, I'm amused and bemused to read that in some European countries taboo curse words include such innocuous ecclesiastical terms as "chalice" and "host" (Eucharistic wafer), without which it would be hard to describe the conduct of an ordinary Sunday service in a Catholic or Anglican church. On page 337 of THE STUFF OF THOUGHT, Pinker lists numerous "bowdlerized alternatives" for taboo words, such as "gosh," "gee," and "darn" for "God," "Jesus," and "damn." The guidelines of at least one inspirational romance publisher forbid the characters to speak any of those euphemisms, because of their status as thinly disguised substitutes for profanity. Given these restrictions, characters in this publisher's novels wouldn't be able to emit any kind of realistic utterance in moments of shock, pain, fear, or anger—except maybe an inarticulate "ouch" or "aargh." Or maybe they'd resort, as I do, to comic-book expletives such as "curses" or "heavens to Murgatroyd" (no, probably no profane references to Heaven allowed).

In Huxley's BRAVE NEW WORLD, where all human infants are conceived and grown in vitro, "mother" and "father" are the two unspeakable obscenities. I once read an SF novel whose title I can't remember about a future society in which the sexual F-word is commonplace, but "fight" is obscene (a speech practice that does have a certain seductive logic, except that the sexual F-word derives from roots meaning to beat or strike and is so often used abusively that I can't make myself perceive its connotations as erotic). In Jacqueline Lichtenberg's Sime-Gen series, the most shocking obscenities relate to interruptions in the selyn flow process. Her invented terms "shen" and "shid" have the linguistic virtue of incorporating the short, blunt sounds we associate with real-world taboo words. The common denominator of taboo words, according to Pinker, relates to phenomena that are vitally important to human beings and yet sometimes disgusting or potentially fraught with danger. So, as we discussed on this blog previously, alien characters would curse in terms that relate to whatever topics are most emotionally sensitive for them. The natives of Venus in Heinlein's SPACE CADET have taboos surrounding food; healthy people old enough to understand proper etiquette never eat in the presence of others. Therefore, blunt speech about eating is obscene for Venusians. For Jacqueline's Simes, the monthly need for selyn is more important than food or sex, so taboo words relate to selyn transfer. WATERSHIP DOWN includes numerous examples of rabbit language, woven so smoothly into the narrative that when in the climactic battle one of the heroes casts an obscene insult (roughly meaning, "Eat s--t!") at the villain, we understand it without translation and get the full emotional force. Would a vampire society use "bloody" as a curse?


  1. I always enjoy a good discussion on language. For space-faring folk, it's important to remember how an alien species might be insulted by their language. Being baby-crazy, of course I always think about how the children of these space-farers would pick up the alien languages more quickly. To their parents' delight and chagrin.

    Children see our world in such vivid honesty, and worlds beyond our imaginations as well. It thrills me to think about how they would see the vast reaches of space and all the creatues which may reside there.

    The bizarre would be funny. The terrifying would be thrilling. The alien would be accepted as normal more quickly. The friendships would be more intense. The losses would be more heartbreaking. They would not be homesick, because the starship would be their home and the crew their family.

    I realize a lot of adults don't want to read about children, though I really cannot comprehend why. When I look at the universe through an adult's eyes, I only see shades of gray.

  2. Hey ... First, I would like to say thank you all for your thoughtful discussions.

    "Bad" language is socially defined, just as you say. Why would anyone think that all cultures share the same phobias?

    This recently came up in my critique group, many of whom thought my kids' language was too salty. I was just quoting the language we used on the playground some 50 years ago. (Must admit, though, none of us were "goody-two-shoes")